Business of News: How Newspapers Can Start Important Conversations with Readers

My sister has no time machine, but she did take me back 50 years.

Seven of us—brothers, sister, in-laws, niece and nephew—sat at my sister’s dinner table recently. When the dishes were cleared, my sister said, “OK, I want to hear from everyone around the table about who the Democrats are going to nominate in 2020 and why. Who wants to start?”

Dinner table conversation about politics and public affairs with my mother and father shaped our childhood. Many of these conversations involved Vietnam, the peace movement, federal deficits and presidents, and I am not going to tell you that every debate was calm and measured. (You’ve heard of an Irish temper, right?) The lessons we learned as children endure: prepare with facts, argue vigorously and listen to other voices.

Newspapers still have the best position to occupy the “dinner table” of American debate. We’ve got facts. We’ve got moderators. We’ve got the ability to share that moderated discussion and engage with our communities. What we don’t have is the ability to force people to listen.

Modern pundits like to say that Americans have never shouted louder or listened less. I do not agree. In the earliest days of our country, President Washington’s approval of the Jay Treaty sparked a riot in the streets of Philadelphia led by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. John Jay said he could travel by the light of the fires burning him in effigy and one newspaper editor wrote: “John Jay, ah! The arch traitor—seize him, drown him, burn him, flay him alive.” Our country survived that and we will survive this.

No doubt our 24/7 cable channels, our internet memes, our chat rooms, our Russian-infiltrated social media sites make measured discussion difficult. Like many philosophers and dairy farmers, however, I think the cream rises to the top and if you can mute the screamers you will find most of your readership craving reasonable, fact-filled conversation on important issues in your community.

If I wanted to start dinner table conversations with my readers and my community, I would circle around the issues that you know are already important to them:

EDUCATION: Bring your school district superintendents and state legislative representatives to an open public forum that is moderated by your education reporter. This can’t be a gripe session about “my kid’s teacher,” but I saw one recently in which a superintendent asked a California Assembly member: “If California is the world’s fifth largest economy, then why is it 46th in per public school pupil spending?” That’s one example of a fascinating discussion for your community’s dinner table.

PUBLIC SAFETY: Oak Hill, Tenn. does not have a major crime problem, but the city wanted citizens to feel safe. It started a site for home security checks. Citizens feel engaged with their police department. Public safety is a crucial issue in every community and mistrust between the public and police is high. It makes sense to engage your community and your police in a discussion.

EMERGENCY: The Thomas Fire was California’s largest wildfire and displaced tens of thousands of residents. In stepped local entrepreneurs Emily Barany and Chris Collier to create ThomasFireHelp.org. The site created thousands of connections between citizens with needs and those who could offer shelter, shelter for animals, personal items and services, and those who needed the same. One pilot offered rides after mudslides closed the freeway and wound up on the NBC National News when he flew a girl from Santa Barbara to UCLA for cancer treatment.  Natural disasters are on everyone’s radar these days so make yourself the leader in community information.

TRAFFIC and POTHOLES: While these are not quite world-changing problems, they are the leading cause of calls to city hall. There are simple ways to partner with public works and citizens to get photos, timelines and traffic detours. You’ll save your community a lot of grief if you lead in making roads better.

Around my sister’s dinner table, we did not agree on who the Democratic nominee will be, but the conversation still reminded me of the place where I shaped my education and debate skills. Make your newspaper the leader of your community dialogue.

Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at [email protected]

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